Cook Book for Recipients of Food Stamps (AND Debtors AND PF “Badasses”)

Almost a year ago, I read a post on Get Rich Slowly by April Dykman entitled How to eat on $4/day. Her article told the story of Leanne Brown, a student who, in preparing the thesis for her Masters in Food Studies, focused upon the plight of food stamp recipients in the U.S. Was it possible for them to eat good food on $4 per day? In her efforts to answer that question, Brown created a cookbook: Good and Cheap

Eager to reduce my family’s grocery budget as part of our debt-reduction efforts, and inspired by Brown’s initiative, I purchased a copy of the book. A few months later, psyched by the delicious dishes we were enjoying – and even more so by the significant drop in our grocery bills – I included a permanent link to Brown’s book on my Prudence Debtfree site under the heading “Featured Money Saver”. I approached Brown about the possibility of an interview, and she accepted, saying the best time would be upon the launch of her book’s second edition. The new and improved version of Good and Cheap is now available, and Leanne Brown, extremely busy at this time, graciously spoke with me about it.  

Leanne Brown first realized her fascination with food policy when she started to work as an assistant to a city councillor in Edmonton, Alberta. Among all of the issues involved in the daily workings of municipal government, she found herself drawn to those that centred upon food. “I had an abiding love of cooking,” Brown explains, “but there was more to it than that.” There was the cultural importance of food and the impact of people’s food choices upon their health. As she discovered the web of complexity surrounding food and access to it, Brown decided to take her interest further, and she was accepted by the University of New York to pursue her Masters Degree in Food Studies.

“I wanted to unleash the power of food and to invite more people to the table.”

Entering her studies at NYU with an open mind, she soon became intrigued by the American system of food stamps – a system about which she knew little as a Canadian. Brown learned that 15% of Americans relied upon food stamps – 46 million citizens. “Such a huge number of people,” Brown recognized, ” but not much of a voice. I wanted to unleash the power of food and to invite more people to the table.”

She found the focus of her Masters thesis: She would share how accessible good food actually is. Brown put an adaptation of her thesis online and was surprised at the feedback she received. Suggestions and encouragement came her way. Lots of it. People were excited! Along with an editor, she further modified her work, and it became the first edition of her cookbook – Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day.

Q. Did you get any feedback from people who were struggling financially and who were helped by following the recipes in Good and Cheap?

A. Yes! I received feedback from people on food stamps, people who had just lost their jobs, and people living on limited budgets. One person was Brenda, a grandmother in Texas caring for two grandchildren on a modest retirement income. She contacted me after she got a copy of the book and told me that she was enjoying it. Brenda had tried to make her budget stretch and to eat as much as possible from her vegetable garden, but she consistently found that towards the end of the month, she’d have to go to the food bank, where the food was often less than healthy. She was frustrated financially and discouraged by weight gain and bad health, suffering as she was from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar.

A few months ago, Brenda contacted me again to tell me that she had lost 30 pounds; she is off all meds for blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar; and she never has to go to the food bank anymore. It was all about Brenda’s determination. I was honoured to provide one piece of the puzzle for her.

Brown is disturbed by the shame typically felt by people on food stamps. “In many cases, it’s a temporary situation,” she explains. “Recent immigrants often need food stamps as they adjust and get settled. People who have lost their jobs sometimes need the help of food stamps until they find new employment. It shouldn’t be a shameful secret! It should be a badge of honour. ‘I got through this!’ People should feel free to talk about it more openly.”

Shameful secret. I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between the psychology of food stamps and the psychology of debt.

Q. Many debtors feel a shame about their debt. The middle-class is full of people who keep their financial distress a secret. How do you feel about the idea of Good and Cheap being used to help them turn their finances around?

A. I love it! I want every single person who can benefit from the book to do so. And to each one of those people, I want to say:

  • Be patient with yourself. Ultimately, it’s about changing your relationship with food, and that takes time.
  • Embrace the potential to eat well on far less than you might think is possible.
  • Give yourself the freedom to think things through. There’s a science to cooking. You will learn different concepts the more you practice.
  • Unleash the magic of cooking! When we think of “magic”, we think of potions concocted in a big pot over a fire. Cooking is the closest thing we have to that.

Q. When I bought my copy of Good and Cheap for $20 USD, I had the option of paying an additional $5 to purchase a copy that would be donated to a needy family. As someone trying to be very careful with money, I was happy to be able to give in such a significant way for so little. Is this an option with the 2nd edition of the book too?

A. The second edition costs $16.95, and now it’s automatic. For every book purchased, a second copy is donated to a needy family at no additional cost. With support from Access Wireless and non profit organizations that deal with low income families, donated copies of Good and Cheap are distributed.

Q. What about people who aren’t set up to follow your recipes because they don’t have the kitchen supplies? Is there a way to get needed cooking utensils to them?

A. We’re hoping to develop partnerships with different companies and non profits to provide starter kits of utensils and also spices. People on low incomes are understandably reluctant to make the upfront expenditures that are often necessary for them to be able to prepare recipes in the book – even though in the long term, there is a significant savings. There is an abundant quantity of kitchen supplies. The goal is to redirect resources to where they’re needed.

Q. When you first arrived in New York City to pursue your studies, did you have any idea of what would be the result?

A. No! 40,000 copies of Good and Cheap sold out, and there are thousands of pre-orders for the 2nd edition.  A few days ago, I did a “radio tour” about the 2nd edition. I was in a studio room with a phone from 7:00 am until 2:00 pm, and I talked with one radio show host after another – all across the U.S.

The 2nd edition of Good and Cheap includes more recipes as well as more information about food. “I didn’t think people would be so interested in the educational aspects of the book, but they are!” Brown says. “I’m glad to be in a position to teach.” There is also a new focus upon food as it relates to the change of seasons as well as specific strategies to eat well.

Maybe you’re trying to make ends meet on a low income, or you’re doing what you can to get out of debt. Maybe you’re a “badass” going for early financial freedom, and you want to cut your expenses in order to save more. Food is a common denominator for all of us. We need it, and our health depends upon wise choices. As it turns out, both wisdom and frugality are served by home cooking real food. In her efforts to reach those without a voice, Leanne Brown has reached us all with her invitation to the table – where the food is both Good and Cheap.

Good and Cheap 2DGood and Cheap. 2nd Edition.

Do you use food stamps? Do you know someone who does? How do you manage your food-related expenses? Your comments are welcome.


12 comments on “Cook Book for Recipients of Food Stamps (AND Debtors AND PF “Badasses”)

  1. Awesome interview!! When I was a kid and my parents first divorced, we were on food stamps for about 2 years as my mom learned the skills she needed to have to get a job. Yes, super embarrassing and we were labeled because of it. As such, I have compassion for those trying hard yet struggling to put food on the table.

    1. Laurie, thank you for the openness of your comment! I hope that more readers who are having – or who have had – to rely upon food stamps will step out and share their experiences of it. No room for “super embarrassing” around here!

    1. I’m no expert on social services in Canada vs. the U.S., but I think the main difference in the case of food is that in Canada, needy families receive money, not food stamps. The benefit (for recipients) is that it’s not obvious where that money came from – whether through employment or government welfare. So the “shame” factor is lessened. I suppose the “risk” (for the government) would be that recipients have the freedom to spend the money on something other than food – and then still need support to get fed.
      If any reader knows more about this than I do, please elaborate.

  2. Great interview – was one of those who got the first edition and shared several more with others in more need than I – though I’m on disability – the Canadian gov’t includes $ for groceries within our social ass’t (welfare, seniors & disability) and its for individuals to become accountants and figure out rent, utilities, groceries etc – by the time my rent & utilities are paid I have $200.00 for “everything” for that month: approx $6.70 – if 4.00 a day is for food – then I have $80.00 a month for everything else: soap, toilet paper, clothes etc etc – its tough but can be done – HOWEVER – there is a movement afoot to distribute debit type cards to social ass’t receivers that can only be used to by food – I so hope this gets voted down – who’s to say how much of one’s income is for food and how much is for “other” – there is the same old disgusting excuse that people on ass’t smoke and drink and feed their pets – well I don’t smoke or drink nor do I have any pets of any kind – its tough enough feeding ones self while on “low fixed income” – leave us on our own to determine how much each month will be for food and how much won’t – most folks making these decisions haven’t a clue what 200.00 a month will realistically purchase anyway – sorry – didn’t mean to rant – in Canada

    1. Thank you for commenting, Elizabeth. I don’t mind your rant : )
      I can’t imagine the strain that such a tight income would put on you. I have personally experienced financial stress – especially when my husband was out of work – but not like what you describe. When unexpected expenses come your way, then what happens to that $200? And how do you decide how to manage it? Leanne actually said in her interview with me that she wouldn’t recommend eating on $4 per day – she acknowledged it as a very limited amount – but it sounds like you do. I’m glad it’s possible, and I’m glad that you decided to share what you found in Good and Cheap with others. I wish you well, Elizabeth, and I hope that you manage to find many “pieces to the puzzle” to help make your daily life as healthy and complete as possible.

  3. What a great tool! There is such a nasty association for those on food stamp here in the U.S. I do agree that there is such an correlation between food and debt. It’s all about changing your behavior and breaking those bad habits. Once you educate yourself and take control you can accomplish anything.

    1. A willingness to learn is definitely key. I find that I’m learning how possible it is to eat well for SO little. Today, for instance, I bought a bit of paprika, 2 cups of lentils, and a cup of cornmeal – all for under $2. I didn’t used to buy ingredients like that, but they’ve helped to create 2 healthy meals that taste delicious. Who knew?

  4. I think the point about the upfront expenditures is so key. Without access to a decent cookware it’s really tough to eat well on $4 per day. I remember my college days where oatmeal and banquet pot pies were staples in my diet. These days, I feed my family of 3 plus a roommate on around $80 per week (and could cut back substantially if necessary), but I also have a full kitchen to work with.

    1. I really hope that Leanne and her team are able to get that program to supply needy households with cooking supplies going. VERY impressive, Hannah, that you’re feeding a household of 4 on $80 per week!
      (PS I’ve never heard of a “banquet pot pie”. I’ll have to look it up : )

  5. This is fascinating! During graduate school, we studied issues related to poor health and limited food budgets for those with low-incomes. I recall access to kitchen supplies and also to grocery stores selling healthier foods as being factors (among others). Some lower income areas in the U.S. have been called “food deserts” because they lack grocery stores selling affordable, healthy foods like fruits and vegetables; instead these neighborhoods may have small convenience stores selling mostly packaged type foods, as well as lots of fast food restaurants, that type of thing. The more resources there are out there to help people, the better. And I love the idea of providing starter kits of kitchen supplies like utensils and spices.

    1. Interesting that you’ve studied this, Jennifer! I have never heard the term “food desert” before. What are people in such areas to do about accessing healthy foods? Especially people on limited incomes? I too hope that the starter kit idea takes off. Thanks for your comment : )

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